Daily newspapers that don’t adapt – and fast – will die
First published in the Pasadena Star News
and San Gabriel Valley Tribune, September 2007
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Journalism in general — and daily newspapers in particular — are undergoing seismic changes, some of which are gut wrenching. Traditional models of reporting and publishing have become obsolete.
Daily newspapers are under attack from multiple directions. Their business model has morphed at light speed. The Internet and electronic delivery of content pose an existential threat. Readers know this, and vote with their pocketbooks.
Those newspapers that don’t adapt — and fast — will die.
The 24-hour news cycle once enjoyed by dailies has been consigned to the dustbin of history by near-instantaneous publishing 24/7. Reporters and editors are now always on deadline. This is the new paradigm for journalism.
Satellite uplinks allow reporters to file continuously from wherever they might be … a Baghdad cafe, the Darfur desert. Not only text, but also video and still images. Sometimes voice commentary.
Increasingly, readers demand that writer/reporters become multi-media content producers.
Another, more existential threat emerged April 16. How news of the Virginia Tech massacre first reached all of us was a sea change in breaking news reporting. It was the prime time debut of the citizen journalist.
Long before any of the major television networks could get to the scene of the unfolding horror, journalism students from the campus paper and other eyewitnesses were writing and publishing near-real-time accounts on their blogs, and posting video to YouTube and MySpace.
CNN grabbed rights to rebroadcast the footage, and for the first critical minutes, this is what they – and soon the other networks – were feeding to the world.
Cell phone cams replaced lipstick cams; students jumped into the breach, applying with aplomb all the new high tech gizmos they had mastered; and citizen journalists provided the world with dramatic, near-real-time accounts of events as they unfolded.
Some in the newspaper business might have felt threatened by these events. Indeed, they should. Many old media companies lead their April 17 papers with traditional style stories starting with a list of the deaths and injuries. Trouble is, by the time the ink was dry, it was old news. Everyone already knew the basic facts.
If newspapers don’t offer readers value, why should readers buy newspapers?
Readers can now access the basic facts of breaking stories instantaneously. If printed newspapers are to survive, they have to offer readers something more. And they can. Seasoned reporters can and do rapidly analyze events and find the context which explains them. Everyone wants to know, why? Why did the student gunman kill so many in such an apparent outburst of anger?
Context, explanation and in-depth analysis are what printed newspapers do best, and it is where their future salvation lies.
These changes are having a dramatic effect on us here in the San Gabriel Valley. Local news has long been a lucrative franchise, but its niche is being eroded by giant news aggregators and enterprising, local Web-only publications … even if some of them have outsourced their reporting to India.
Local newspaper publishers must defend their franchise, or they’ll lose it.
They must embrace the new paradigm. They must begin to assume readers know the basic outlines of breaking news stories. In fact, they must publish this in their Web editions, not wait for the printed paper to arrive.
Then they must add value to the stories that appear in print – otherwise they’ll cannibalize their readership.
The printed and Web editions are not – must not be – mutually exclusive. They must complement and enhance each other. Print can and must offer more rigorous stories that analyze and explain the news. Electronic editions can and must break news fast and expand content in ways not possible in print – allowing comments on stories, reader polls and giving photographers’ work more room.
And, they must take risks. Virtually every newspaper is experimenting with innovations on their electronic editions. Not all of them work; some don’t work the first time.
Newspaper editors and reporters must not be afraid to make mistakes. But, they also must learn from the mistakes – and successes – of others.
Most of all, readers are demanding that journalists start thinking differently about their jobs. They are now always on deadline. They are now multi-media producers of content. They are also geeks, setting up the mechanisms of delivery.
They must embrace journalism’s new paradigm.
This is an extract adapted from his first-ever academic-year opening address to senior journalism students presented Aug. 28, 2007